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Mar 15, 2012 06:47 AM

Marco - big portions, otherwise merely "acceptable"

We dined at Marco last night on one of the Gilt coupons ($50 for app/entree/dessert for 2, available till midday tomorrow I think). I had eaten there once, shortly after they opened 6 years ago and had a vague recollection that they stuck to fairly rustic, Italian-style (rather than Italian-American) preparations of fairly classic dishes. Not anymore, based on our dinner.

We ordered the shrimp bruschetta, the mozzarella and ricotta fritters, the tagliatelle Bolognese, and the osso buco.

The focaccia and caponata they brought at the beginning of the meal was very good. The appetizers were huge. The fritters were three tennis ball sized balls of breaded, fried cheese surrounded by a simple tomato sauce. The fry job was nice, and mostly-ricotta cheese was smooth and milky-sweet. But the tomato sauce erred on the sweet side and had only about three strips of basil chiffonade, and so the dish seemed too sweet and rich on the whole. Of course, the portion size probably contributed.

Fortunately, the shrimp bruschetta offered a nice tart counterpoint. In calling it "bruschetta" they were certainly taking some...artistic liberty with the term. It was about half a dozen large shrimp and some quartered plum tomatoes in a generous quantity of thick white wine and butter sauce that included a healthy dose of garlic capers and lemon juice. Oh, and a tiny wedge of ever-so-slightly grilled foccacia was found swimming in the sauce. The dish was delicious, and again, the portion large, but there is no way in hell anyone would call it "bruschetta." I mentioned the sauce was thick--it was thick almost to the point of gloopy (but not quite)--which made it feel like it had a sort of "restaurant-iness" to it that I usually don't associate with Italian food. This turned out to be a theme as the meal continued...

My wife had the osso buco, which was perfectly fine, from what I could tell (I only ate a small bite). It was a nice large piece of shank, cooked sufficiently with what looked to be a good initial sear. The risotto Milanese had plenty of saffron flavor. But this dish came out with a "restaurant sheen," looking like it had bee lacquered with demi glace. The plate could have doubled as a plate of plastic food outside a Tokyo restaurant. I dunno...weird.

My tagliatelle Bolognese was, again, something I wouldn't really call tagliatelle Bolognese. The homemade pasta was very thick and stiff (they remained crinkly in the bowl from their resting shape), and the noodles were the widest "tagliatelle" I've seen--they were probably 0.75" wide. And Bologna must be swimming in cream these days, because the sauce was thick with the stuff. As someone who grew up eating Marcella Hazan's ragu, well, I was a bit disappointed. Like the cheese fritters, this was another dish that was heavy on the rich and sweet flavors, with no acidic counterpoint. Combined with the chunky noodles and the big appetizers we ate, I said uncle after eating maybe a third of the portion.

For dessert, we both had the affogato, which was a nice relief from the richness of the rest of the meal. I think I would have passed out if they had brought the chocolate torta or the tiramisu.

The service was a bit slow. Food came out hot and prompt, but otherwise our waiter seemed overworked. Either they weren't expecting a full house on Wednesday, or they need to hire another waiter. Oh, and the place is loud--small, lots of hard surfaces. The tables by the windows are nice.

I'm a little conflicted over what to think of this meal. On one hand, there were no blatant misses. But on the other hand, when I see a menu of fairly classic dishes (tagliatelle bolognese, risotto ai funghi, orecchiette w/sausage and broccoli rabe, chicken cacciatore, osso buco milanese, etc), I expect these dished to be executed traditionally. Bruschetta with no bread? Ragu with cream? Lacquered osso buco? I don't want to badmouth a place just because it doesn't follow the "rules." Nonetheless, it's distracting at the least, and it takes what could be a very simple, straightforward Italian menu and transforms it in to the same homogeneous, overworked stuff that typifies many of the North End restaurants. It had been a while, and I'd only eaten there once, but I had the impression that Marco was a no-BS Italian place that aimed for rustic, Italian-style stuff, not magazine-cover, Italian-American restaurant stuff. Oh well...

If you go with one of the Gilt coupons, bring a third (and maybe fourth) person, or be prepared for a doggy bag. It's a *lot* of food.

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  1. Thanks for the detailed report. It is really helpful. Actually, after reading it I bought the Gilt coupon. I haven't made it to Marco and have been curious since it's usually recommended on this board as a romantic casual spot. There are certainly lots of people who have been underwhelmed, though. This seems like a fairly safe way to try it out without breaking the bank.

    I don't imagine that they'd let you bring a third person to share the coupon, though. I guess we'll just plan on doggie bags!

    1. My wife and I dined here last weekend. I had, in fact, read emannths' report before making the reservation. Sadly, I failed to heed it.

      Our meal was almost exactly as described above, from the delicious caponata to the gloppy, glossy grossness of the rest of the dishes. The menu reads as so traditional, but the food couldn't be less Italian in execution.

      The antipasti was a total bummer, a few slices of various salumi of the sort you might find prepackaged at Stop-n-Shop. Scooped on top were two basically identical and largely flavorless white bean salads and a similarly boring tuna salad. Cold sliced roasted red peppers. Soggy cold eggplant. Dismal.

      Up next was a thick, gloppy rice preparation that they actually had the brass to call "risotto". The rice was mush - grains were not discernable - and tasted like a recipe you might find on the back of a can of condensed mushroom soup. My wife fell out of her chair laughing as I attempted to shake a stuck, gloppy spoonful into my bowl without flinging it into the void. Thankfully, we ordered uno per due. And ignored it as best we could.

      Finally I had something like a carbonara with mushrooms. I'm not comparing this against my Platonic ideal of carbonara - which would be something comparable to Roscioli's or Perilli's, and like nothing I've ever found at any restaurant in Boston. Rather, I'm judging this against a more generalized idea of Italian cuisine, one that emphasizes a purity of flavors and textures and eschews that homogenized, ponderously one-note, utterly graceless style of Italian-american cuisine that you don't just find at Maggiano's or Papparazi. Sadly, you also find it at Marco's and throughout the North End.

      On the plus side, our waitress was charming and attentive, and the table by one of the windows was pleasant. But I've (re)learned an important lesson: when a ch-hounder like emannths posts a detailed report from a knowledgeable perspective which speaks so directly to my own preferences and expecations ... pay heed. There was no need for me to repeat his unfortunate experience. No need at all.

      3 Replies
      1. re: Ricardo Malocchio

        Curious...was the place busy? I feel like the food everyone is describing is going to appeal to a large (and I mean *large*) segment of the population.

        1. re: Bob Dobalina

          We dined early, as it was the only reservation we could get. Crowd at that point was small, though the place filled up completely by the time secondis arrived. Service was excellent, and I don't doubt the food was prepared as intended - my disappointment was in the manner of preparation. It was essentially un-Italian.

          Which is a criticism that's applicable to most Italian restaurants in Boston. And even where it's not applicable - say Erbaluce or Trattoria Toscana - the food still comes off as a mere approximation of, say, Piedmontese and Tuscan cuisine.

          I understand that seasonality and quality of ingredients is perhaps an inescapable problem in this country. I'm certainly not the first person who ever marveled at the incredible freshness and intensity of flavor of ingredients in Italy and lamented the lack of that here. And I don't doubt there's a big element of giving the people what they want. Marco does not appear to lack for business.

          But then I think of a place like Neptune, which is often deemed a "non Italian" North End restaurant, but which - in it's emphasis on seasonal ingredients and subtle, respectful preparation - is actually far more Italian than most North End restaurants.

          1. re: Ricardo Malocchio

            Appreciate your feedback and completely agree with you about Neptune.

      2. A lot of traditional Bolognese recipes call for whole milk, including my standby, Marcella Hazan's own, though I've never seen one with cream in it. The milk should simmer away to invisibility.

        I've always thought of Marco as having above-average, more traditional fare than most of the North End, offering a nice region-trotting menu (though ostensibly Roman), but I haven't been back in a while. I tend to avoid it with noise-sensitive dining companions. I thought the portions were somewhat sized up for American tastes, but not egregiously so like some nearby competitors.

        These days, any place that's not brand-new but is participating in Groupon sets off alarm bells in me.

        1 Reply
        1. re: MC Slim JB

          I have made this white Bolognese recipe to cheers, which uses heavy cream -

        2. Marco was a real gem when it first opened. Probably our favorite restaurant in the North End. But chefs changed with time and the food did as well (for the worse). Sadly, we have given up going there anymore.

          2 Replies
            1. re: Spelunker

              Orfaly is still owner and exec chef. Matt Adobo was chef de cuisine last I looked.


          1. They have a new menu, which may the reason for the Groupon. Place is packed every night. I don't think there is anything special about it besides the homey atmosphere and casual service, but it's always been at least solid, above average for the hood, IMO. I tend to like my pasta firm and think they're actually very good on that front.

            I have not experienced the issues noted above: Glossy food, creamy bolognese, pre packaged salumi, oversized portions, gloppy risotto. Also- you can get a half-order of every pasta dish on the menu.

            Did you take any pictures of the glossy food or creamy bolognese?

            5 Replies
            1. re: Beachowolfe

              No photos. And as the resurrector of this thread, I can't speak to emannths' Bolognese except to say its an odd dish to find at a restaurant that proclaims itself as "featuring the cosmopolitan cuisine of Roma".

              Which is what set my expectations.

              I do happen to have photos of dishes from actual Roman restaurants which I might even be able to post here with the aid of some instruction - cacio e pepe from Roscioli, carbonara and coda alla vaccinara from Perilli, amatriciana from Antico Arco, etc. These are simple, peasant recipes that my wife and I have been able to adequately recapture in our own kitchen with ingredients from good markets like Salumeria Italiana (which is just down the block from Marco).

              However, I suspect that most of you are not only familiar with true Roman cuisine, but probably have very specific thoughts about its proper preparation. Which is to say I don't believe anyone's really disputing that Marco is not traditional Roman cuisine - which is ok in my book, as variation and personal inspiration is certainly part of that tradition. I'm going a step further in my criticism that Marco's cuisine is essentially un-Italian, variations that bend more toward typical American restaurant fare than some Lazio-based inspiration.

              I'm probably stepping in deep doo-doo with the following statement, but I honestly find more joy and satisfaction - and more Roman typicity, for whatever that's worth to anyone - in the amatriciana ordered inexpensively off the soiled plastic menus at touristy Saraceno's than anything I was served at Marco. Ok, except for the caponata.

              1. re: Ricardo Malocchio

                "Marco features the cosmopolitan cuisine of Rome while paying homage to its many regional influences."

                1. re: Beachowolfe

                  Yeah, kinda weird huh? Not only not especially Roman, but nothing else on the menu that I could identify as being of greater Latium. Or even Umbrian. Perhaps at one point the menu was considerably more Roman?

                  But I wouldn't mind if they proclaimed themselves Tuscan and served nothing but Piedmont cuisine so long as it was good (and since we really have only one sorta Piedmontese restaurant I can think of).

                  1. re: Ricardo Malocchio

                    I always thought that a place trying to do Roman cuisine would feature some local cucina Laziale and then dishes from around the country, the way a New American restaurant in New York might show influences from around the US. I guess I'm never surprised when a North End place starts out doing something more traditional but then adapts to a crowd that doesn't care if it gets the source cuisine right or not.

                    Even Prezza, one of my favorite North End places, kind of dumbed it down after a while, at least in terms of portion sizes. In the early days, you could finish a traditional antipasto / primo / secondo series of courses there, plus a contorno or two and dessert. Now, one such sequence will feed two people.


              2. re: Beachowolfe

                OP here. There are some pictures (not mine) of these dishes on Yelp. Many are bad cell phone pictures in bad light, but some help tell the story. And my sample size is only one, but I double-guarantee the observation of the thickened sauce on the shrimp "bruschetta" (, the cream in the ragu (, and the lacquered osso buco (

                As Ricardo also seems to have found, I think a lot of the misses were due to my expectation that the menu would be much more...rustic in preparation and truer to the Italian ethos. Other than a couple dishes that could have been balanced by a bit more acid, the food was fine. But it's not a place to go for Italian-style cooking, which is what made it stand out from the crowd of pedestrian North End places during my first visit.

                WRT the portion size, it was really only the appetizers that were huge. And I'm not complaining.

                P.S. Ricardo, I LOLed at the "carbonara":